SI Vault
J. D. Reed
September 20, 1976
A loud-mouthed, no-nonsense, incorruptible public servant and the most stringent strip-mining laws in the country have reclaimed Pennsylvania land that once resembled a vision of hell
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September 20, 1976

Healing The Wounded Earth

A loud-mouthed, no-nonsense, incorruptible public servant and the most stringent strip-mining laws in the country have reclaimed Pennsylvania land that once resembled a vision of hell

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The earth is erupted, pinched, cratered, as if it has been afflicted by a plague of boils. The caustic smell of sulphuric acid rises where the uncovered spoil coal meets the June air, and red rivulets of iron-heavy water trickle down the hillsides. Migrant vetch and scrub pine poke out at crazy angles from the flinty shale, and torn-up hemlock roots turn a purplish gray as the sun slides behind a horizon of soft rolling peaks. Welcome to Mars.

"Sons a' bees," yells William E. Guckert, seated at the wheel of his station wagon. "Greed. Nothing new about that. But these boys have the tools to do a real job.

"Back in 1961, there were over 200,000 acres of Pennsylvania that looked like this," he goes on in a speeded-up Wallace Beery voice. "Now we've stopped that; there's no new unreclaimed areas, and we're putting the old stuff back to use at the rate of 3,000 to 4,000 acres a year. That 'old-law' stuff of not having to reclaim is criminal."

Although at times he sounds like one, Guckert is no Mark Trail-type lover of nature and sweet reasonableness. If he were, he'd be obeying the 55-mph speed limit, but he's nearing 80 as his anger mounts in memory of what the surface-mining, or strip-mine, industry has done in this Allegheny mountain country.

More than half of the 640 million tons of coal mined annually in the U.S. is produced by surface-mining techniques. Rather than leaving a puncture wound in the earth's skin, as in traditional shaft mining, the skin itself is peeled back, exposing the raw meat, as it were, and creating the conditions for landslides, soil erosion, water pollution and a highly visible ugliness.

At present, one third of all the electric power generated in the U.S. comes from strip-mined coal. But rising oil prices have revived interest in the vast coalfields of Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota, which contain an estimated 1.3 trillion tons, or 40% of domestic coal reserves, only part of which can be strip-mined. Already the price per ton for steam coal has risen from a mid-'50s low of $2 to $3 to $16 to $20. Bumper stickers in Pennsylvania, reading COAL—NO FUEL LIKE AN OLD FUEL, reflect the optimism of the eastern industry.

But the question plaguing farmers, cattle and sheep ranchers, environmentalists and sportsmen is whether the earth can be put back to its useful and/or natural state after the coal is extracted. Where does wildlife go during strip mining? Does it return to its former habitats after mining? What happens to water quality in streams and wells? Will reclaimed farmland be as productive as it was before being mined? These questions vex experts and concerned laymen.

Bill Guckert, Pennsylvania's director of the Bureau of Surface Mine Reclamation, has been asking these questions for more than a decade and has gotten some of the answers. Balding, built like a dangerous artillery shell, Guckert looks 10 years younger than his 68 years. He wears his fedora with a wild-turkey-feather band at a rakish angle as he blasts along Interstate 80 in Clearfield County, the heart of the bituminous-coal country. Guckert is in charge of policing all surface-mining in the state, including more than 400 coal-mine operators working almost 700 mines in western Pennsylvania. It is his job (along with 28 inspectors) to make sure strip miners patch the earth, repair the damage caused by their huge machines, clean the streams and generally tidy up behind their huge draglines, loaders and earthmovers. A hater of committees and study groups, Bill Guckert has become the Judge Roy Bean of reclamation—decisions rendered on the spot—and a formidable foe in the political ring.

Although the federal government, through divisions such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration, is supposed to be watchdogging the mining industry, Guckert doesn't think much of their performance.

"Those cockeyed sons a' bees down in Washington," he yells, pounding the car seat as he speeds up to pass a truck, "they don't understand a cockeyed thing. All the federal regulatory agencies are badly managed. All they're interested in is bringing charges against industry to justify their existence.

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